Fishery council moves toward more regulation to limit chum salmon bycatch but avoids firm cap

April 11, 2023

Responding to Western Alaska salmon disasters, a federal council agrees on concepts, leaving fisheries service to come up with details on future limits

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

ederal fishery managers took a step over the weekend toward applying a firm cap on the accidental catches of chum salmon by large vessels trawling for pollock in the Bering Sea, a subject that has gained urgency with salmon run failures along Western Alaska rivers. But it didn’t go as far as what was sought by some raising alarms about the failures.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has been meeting since last weekend in Anchorage, approved a plan that sets some parameters for how such a cap would be established. Under the action approved by the council, the National Marine Fisheries Service would start the regulatory process of determining limits for allowable bycatch, the term for incidental harvesting of nontargeted species.

The council rejected some specific numbers for limits to allowable chum salmon bycatch that had been recommended by its advisory panel. That panel — a group with representatives of industry, fishers and communities – recommended chum bycatch caps ranging between 22,000 and 54,000 fish. Pollock fisheries would be forced to cease for the season if bycatch limits were reached. Average annual chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea fisheries from 2011 to 2021 was just under 40,000, according to NMFS.

The action taken Saturday was the most prudent step to be taken now, council members said.

“From my seat, this is now a humanitarian crisis. Three consecutive years of people of Western Alaska not having access to one of the most important sources of food, one of the most important elements in their culture, one of the most important parts of their lives is, to me, unimaginably devastating,” said Bill Tweit, a council member from Washington state. However, the full extent of the council’s ability to remedy the crisis is not clear, he said. 

“As a body we need to be absolutely certain that we are doing everything we can to avoid making this crisis any worse than it already is,” he said.

Council member Kenny Down encouraged affected Western Alaska fishers like those who testified at the meeting to “hang in there with this process.” It is important to continue to hear from them, he said. 

“That provides the urgency that we need to move this as quickly as we possibly can in the process that we have, which is not known for being quick, but it’s the process that we’ve got,” he said.

The council’s action fell short of what is needed to address the crisis, critics said.

“We’re disappointed but not surprised by the inaction of the council,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState, a nonprofit organization focused on protection of Alaska salmon.

Bristol said he is losing confidence in the council process. “From our perspective, it seems like what’s occurred over the last couple of years is you have a pollock fishery and everything has to work around their catch – everything,” he said.

Kevin Whitworth, executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the council action was less than what was desired, but a step forward nonetheless. 

“We were hoping the Council would start the process of analyzing management action to reduce Western Alaska chum salmon bycatch, rather than asking more questions and delaying true action. However, we have hope that we are moving forward, in great part because of the ongoing and powerful testimonies from Alaska Native salmon fishermen, and that the information from the Council’s ask will inform meaningful action to conserve salmon in the Bering Sea,” Whitworth said in the statement.

Trawlers are seen in Unalaska on Sept. 24, 2013. Trawlers use nets to harvest pollock and other groundfish species in the Bering Sea; the ships' incidental catch of river-bound salmon puts the pollock industry in conflict with commercial and subsistence fishermen in Western Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon) Trawlers are seen in Unalaska on Sept. 24, 2013. Trawlers use nets to harvest pollock and other groundfish species in the Bering Sea; the ships’ incidental catch of river-bound salmon puts the pollock industry in conflict with commercial and subsistence fishermen in Western Alaska. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Runs of chum salmon, a staple in the diets, economy and culture for residents of Indigenous villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, have collapsed in recent years. The recent chum collapses follow several years of poor returns for Chinook salmon, another staple along the river systems. In some areas, chum and Chinook fishing has been shut down entirely,The pollock harvest, in contrast, is a dominant force in the fishing industry. It is the largest single-species commercial seafood harvest in the nation and one of the largest in the world.

In testimony to the council, residents of Yukon and Kuskokwim villages described how the salmon crashes are hurting them.

The lack of salmon fishing on the Yukon River has hurt cultural traditions and even people’s health, said Serena Fitka, executive director for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association. “I cannot stress the urgency to those who do not understand our ways of living. It is something you cannot get from reading a book. You need to go and see for yourself,” she said.

The story is similar on the Kuskokwim River, where there has been a decline of up to 97% of chum salmon, said Mike Williams Sr., a longtime Yup’ik leader with the Akiak Native Community, said in his testimony to the council.

“We are making enormous sacrifices on conservation, and it is hurting our food security, our culture, our children and elders. There is nothing else that we can give,” Williams said.

There is emerging scientific consensus among scientists that at-sea bycatch is not the major reason for the crashes. Climate change and other environmental changes in the ocean and rivers are considered to be the main drivers. Additionally, large amounts of Asian hatchery chum salmon that have recently been released into the Bering Sea are considered a possible factor, as those fish eat the same food and use the same ocean resources as do the Alaska-origin wild fish. The majority of chum salmon caught as bycatch come from Asian hatcheries, genetic analysis has shown.

However, unlike climate change or Asian hatchery production, bycatch is a factor over which regulators have some immediate control, Williams and others said. And any fish lost in a trawl net means a loss to residents, he said.

“We need every fish to return to our rivers. Every salmon of every species counts to us, to our children, our elders and our ecosystem,” Williams told the council.

Representatives of the pollock harvesters, however, said they work carefully to avoid catching chum salmon and other non-targeted species.

Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, a trade group for factory trawlers that harvest pollock and process it onboard, said the industry has demonstrated its ability to respond to salmon disasters. “We want to address the critical nature of the declines in Western Alaska,” she said. She pointed to the 2022 chum bycatch numbers, which were significantly lower than those in 2021. A solution should combine regulatory changes with industry incentives, she said.

Her group does not support a firm overall cap, which she characterized as potentially ineffective. “If it’s an overall cap, we don’t know in-seas whether we’re catching Asian hatchery fish or Western Alaska fish,” she said. Instead, there should be an analysis of a more precisely targeted cap, she said.

Bycatch caps for Chinook salmon have been in effect for several years, both for the trawl fleets operating in the Bering Sea and for those operating in the Gulf of Alaska. Chinook runs have been in decline for a long period, and the species is the subject of a U.S.-Canada treaty.

The chum salmon problems are more recent, though the idea of a numerical cap for chum salmon has been considered for several years. Most recently, a bycatch task force created by Gov. Mike Dunleavy included a fixed cap on chum bycatch as one of its recommendations; Williams is a member of the task force but was speaking to the council on behalf of his tribe; Madsen is also a member.

Chum and Chinook salmon runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim systems are expected to be poor again this year, according to the forecast released last week by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Projections are that the Chinook run will be too poor to allow any Yukon River harvest at all of that species in 2023, and while there may be enough chum salmon to support subsistence harvests, the prospect of having enough chum to support a commercial harvest is “highly unlikely,” according to the forecast.

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